No dice

National | Heavily divided federal commission recommends a moratorium on the expansion of legalized gambling

Issue: "Quayle's presidential bid," June 19, 1999

Who would have bet James Dobson would become chummy with a certified liberal like ex-California Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy? What are the odds that the Focus on the Family founder would cite a left-wing magazine like Mother Jones to underscore a point about morality in politics? These are the kinds of unlikely co-belligerencies forged over two years among members of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, which was scheduled to issue its final report on June 18. The panel asked whether legalized gambling is a ticket to regional economic prosperity or an addictive blight. It concluded, on a 5-4 vote, that there should be a moratorium on the expansion of legalized gambling in America, one that would allow states "to stop, take a deep breath, and evaluate what has happened so quickly with this epidemic of gambling," said Focus on the Family president James Dobson, who served on the commission. "Many of the decisions to expand gambling enterprises," he added, "have been made without careful consideration of potential harm and implications for families, and for the economy in general." It was rampant gambling expansion-and the gambling industry's influence on politics, the economy, crime, and other social ills-that first prompted concern on Capitol Hill earlier this decade. Some form of gambling, whether casinos, lotteries, bingo, or Indian gambling, is now legal in 47 states. Since 1982, gambling revenues have jumped from just over $10 billion to nearly $51 billion annually, according to International Gaming and Wagering Business magazine. (The gambling industry prefers the word gaming, as if the subject of discussion were hopscotch.) Americans now wager nearly $600 billion a year-at least $100 billion a year more than is spent on food. In the face of this burgeoning industrial behemoth, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) led a congressional call for in-depth government scrutiny of legal gambling. When the bill authorizing the commission finally passed in 1996, it was with bipartisan rancor. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.), and other lawmakers with significant gambling interests in their home states dug in their heels to prevent the bill's passage. When the commission finally cleared all legislative hurdles, its list of appointees read like a political rainbow. Christian conservatives like James Dobson and Robertson School of Government dean Kay Coles James anchored the panel at one end. Staunch gambling advocates like William Bible, former head of the Nevada Gaming Control Board, made up the other side, with liberals like Leo McCarthy, a former California lieutenant governor, in the middle out of expressions of concern for the poor. Not only was the commission itself divided, but a peanut gallery of interested parties formed on the sidelines (see sidebar, next page). On the issue of political contributions by gambling interests, for example, American Gaming Association president Frank Fahrenkopf vociferously opposed commission conservatives, both behind the scenes and in the media. "I'm a Knight of Malta in the Catholic Church, and I don't need Jim Dobson to tell me what's moral," Mr. Fahrenkopf told The Washington Times in January. "And we're not going to apologize for trying to influence political elections." For his part, Dr. Dobson said he favored even stricter sanctions against political contributions by gambling interests than were ultimately included in the commission's final report. "Our recommendations didn't go nearly as far as I would have liked," he said. "There is an enormous amount of money flowing into both political parties and into states where entrepreneurs are attempting to influence the electoral process. It has an enormous impact on decision makers because money is the mother's milk of politics." In the end, moderates and conservatives united to form a bare and often beleaguered majority. As a result, the commission's 300-page report turned out to be a mixed bag of 70 recommendations, including these:

  • States should curb political donations from companies involved in the gambling business. Both Democrats and Republicans benefit from gambling industry largesse. Over the past decade, each party has banked about $9 million in donations from gambling interests, according to the liberal group Common Cause.
  • Only those 21 and older should be allowed to gamble. The minimum age in many states for playing the lottery or gambling on horses is now 18. 0Betting on college athletics-part of legal sports betting in Nevada and Oregon-should be banned: It "threatens the integrity of college athletics," said commissioner Dobson. According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan, more than 1 in 20 college athletes admitted shaving points, leaking inside information for gambling purposes, or betting on their own games.
  • States should dedicate a portion of casino tax revenue to research on prevention, education, and treatment of problem gambling; tribal governments should make similar contributions. Researchers differ on the question of gambling addiction. While commission studies found that only 1 in 100 gamblers will become addicted, other research places the figure at more than 1 in 20. The commissioners unanimously urged insurance companies and HMOs to cover treatment plans for "pathological gamblers."
  • Indian tribes that run casinos should use some of the revenue as "seed money" to diversify their finances and reduce dependence on gambling. Tribal casinos raked in more than $6.5 billion in 1997.
  • The federal government should gather data on state lotteries, including demographic information on who plays. In addition, state lotteries and other forms of government-sponsored gambling should discontinue aggressive marketing that targets impoverished neighborhoods or youth. Studies in at least five states including Texas, Colorado, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Virginia show a disproportionate amount of advertising and number of lottery outlets in communities whose residents can least afford to gamble away their money.
  • Governments should require "gambling impact statements"-akin to the environmental impact statements required of developers-before approving new or additional casinos, slot machines, or lotteries.
  • States should not allow casino-style gambling to be introduced at horse tracks or other parimutuel facilities for the primary purpose of bailing them out financially or competing with other forms of gambling. According to International Gaming & Wagering Business, parimutuel gambling, which includes jai alai, horse racing, and greyhound racing, lags far behind other major gambling segments in both growth and market share.
  • Automated teller machines should be banned from the area where betting takes place at casinos or racetracks.
  • States should stop the proliferation of "convenience gambling" outlets, such as video gambling machines in neighborhood stores. In South Carolina, where more than 30,000 video poker machines dot the landscape, the law does not prevent children from placing bets-only from collecting any winnings. The commission's report will be presented to federal, state, local, and tribal governments and researchers. But what weight will it carry? Commissioner Richard Leone, who backed the commission's most controversial recommendations to limit gambling, said he believed the report will spur action by governments and civic organizations. Pro-gambling commissioner William Bible didn't agree. He said recommendations like the moratorium and limits on political contribution would be "discounted, blown off by the states." But he did acknowledge that the divided panel found common ground on the issue of problem gambling. The strong appeal for more research, education, and treatment, he said, "would probably be the legacy of this commission."

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Lynn Vincent
Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine and the best-selling author of 10 non-fiction books.


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